How Young Americans Become White Supremacists

Understanding the pathways to the radicalization of young Americans.

Posted Oct 18, 2020

Review of Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.  By Cynthia Miller-Idriss.  Princeton University Press.  246 pp.  $29.95

In 2018, the number of hate groups in the United States rose to a record high of 1,020.  Far-right propaganda, recruiting, and activism is also surging.  And since 2014 white supremacists were responsible for at least 100 deaths in the U.S. and Canada.

Photo by Allright by Pixabay
Source: Photo by Allright by Pixabay

Nonetheless, although the growth of far-right extremists (estimated at 75,000-100,000 Americans) has been well-documented, the federal government has put the vast majority of its resources into combatting foreign Islamic terrorists.  “It is clear,” according to Cynthia Miller-Idriss, a professor of education and sociology at American University and the author of The Extreme Gone Mainstream, that the U.S. “has only scratched the surface in understanding the dynamics of far-right extremism and the strategies that might work to combat it.”

In Hate in the Homeland, Miller-Idriss argues that in addition to focusing on the how and why of attractions to extremism, we must understand the where and when.  For young recruits, the pathways to radicalization “include ordinary interactions in the mainstream spaces and places of the everyday.”  Hate in the Homeland is a sweeping, superb, and scary analysis of a great and growing threat to our country.

Miller-Idriss illuminates the many and varied ways in which extremists enter the mainstream of American culture.  She demonstrates, for example, how they have politicized Americans’ food preferences.  President Obama, Infowars founder Alex Jones claimed, “wants to take away America’s meat, just like they were coming for guns and American flags.”  Soy burgers, according to neo-Nazi podcasters Joseph Jordan and Mike Peinovich, are part of a Jewish plot to make the U.S. a Third World country.  In appeals to women, extremists stress healthy food as essential to “a racially pure home.”

T-shirts enable the far-right to promote messages like “zero white guilt,” pair Confederate flags with semi-automatic guns, and make some money for their organizations.  As consumers click on web sites, messages about the need for revolutionary action are interspersed with images of products.  And the T-shirts serve as “ice breakers” for conversations at school, bars, and parties.

Mixed Martial Arts help extremists persuade young males to affirm their views about masculinity and defense of their neighborhoods against alien invaders while providing “brand-fan” social media sites and actual physical spaces for them to come together.

Extremists, of course, use mainstream social media to communicate with true believers and potential recruits.  They use algorithms to make it more likely that searchers will direct users to their web sites and link individuals interested in, say abortion or gun control, to broader far-right content.  They have developed alternative platforms that serve as their “echo chambers.”  They insert racial slurs, swastikas, and misogyny into video games.  By posting manifestos and live-streaming attacks, far-right groups inspire “disciples” (like Dylan Roof) to commit acts of violence.

The U.S., Miller-Idriss maintains, is far behind West European countries in understanding, let alone building capacity to combat far-right extremism.  She offers no easy solutions to the problem but makes a compelling case that relying on law enforcement is at best a “Band-Aid” solution.  The best place to start, she writes, is to meet students where they already are: in schools, college campuses, fitness clubs, social media sites, gaming platforms, consumer goods stores.  And to identify individuals—coaches, trainers, clothing designers, online content developers, peers, and parents—who also spend time in those places and spaces and might create preventive pathways or serve as intervention partners.

Most important of all, she reminds us, preventing white-supremacy from taking hold in this country “is more than the work of a specialist few.  It is part of everyone’s obligation to a thriving democracy.”


Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.